Criticizing the critic



EDITOR'S NOTE: This post was updated at 1:51 p.m. Feb. 9.

In response to my post below (beginning with "In last week's ..."), I received a link to a Jan. 25 Salon article by writer Francis Lam, titled "Restaurant critics stare into the abyss: With Yelp and an infinite number of food blogs, do you care what the professionals have to say?"

It makes for another great read on the subject of critiquing restaurants in a glutted market.

I agree with James Beard Foundation vice president Mitchell Davis, who argues that the "overwhelming amount of information of unknowable origin available online" does make "opinions expressed in traditional reviews written with an adherence to journalistic ethics seem more trustworthy."


In last week's Indy Bites Guide, I offered you this brief rundown of general criteria we use when heading out for food reviews, in hopes that readers will post more of their own restaurant reviews on our Web site.

Yesterday, our copy editor, Kirsten Akens, sent me a Columbia Journalism Review article titled "Everyone Eats ... But that doesn't make you a restaurant critic."

I thought I'd pass it along for those who intend to start dishing opinions, or just for those who'll eat up just about anything on the subject. It goes way more in depth than I previously had the space to and looks back at the history of the modern American review, credited to New York Times critic Craig Claiborne.

There were several passages by author Robert Sietsema that I found myself wanting to highlight (thankfully, I've kicked my expensive habit of drawing on my computer monitor), but if you read nothing else, I recommend skipping to the bottom for Sietsema's artful conclusion:

More than ever, diners could use a reliable critical guide. But where once there were a few dependable voices who reviewed restaurants based on a common set of professional standards and strategies, there is now a digital free-for-all. As with many things on the Web, this profusion of voices is often touted as a wondrous blow for democracy, a long-overdue rising up of the masses against the elitist overlords of the culinary realm. Thus the runaway popularity of sites like Chowhound and Yelp, which publishes city-specific reviews by anyone who cares to weigh in on everything from restaurants to churches, and whose motto is “Real People. Real Reviews.” I’m all for everyone having his or her say, but when it comes to cultural criticism there is a strong case to be made for professionalism and expertise. As the eminent film critic Richard Schickel wrote in 2007, in response to a New York Times article on the decline of professional book-reviewing and the rise of review-bloggers: “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions . . . . It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”

Craig Claiborne, and those who followed him, lifted the restaurant review out of the realm of marketing and made it a public service—a job defined by professional standards and expertise. Today, despite whatever benefits come with the every-man-a-critic ethos, we are in danger of losing that public service.

Other key aspects missing from my cursory critic's criteria rundown: the issues of anonymity, freebies and general conflict of interest, all of which are covered in Sietsema's piece.

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